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Gronvold: Arnie and Me

By Staff | Sep 30, 2016

Legendary golfer Arnold Palmer died recently. He was 87. His death was huge front-page news here in Central Florida because he was the single most important sports figure in these parts, which are chock-full of sports superstars, past and present.

The Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies were established in Orlando years ago and provide state-of-the art medical care. Winnie was Palmer’s wife of 45 years who died in 1999. My late mother Ellen has briefly hospitalized in one of Palmer’s hospitals following a late 2007 stroke. There is a local PGA tournament named for Mr. Palmer, played on his golf course, Bay Hill, out by Disney World in March.

Palmer is originally from Latrobe (near Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania. His father was the groundskeeper and resident pro at the local course. Palmer, born in 1929, won the U.S. Amateur Championship in 1954 and four years later would win the first of his four Masters Invitational championships. He would add a win at the U.S. Open and two British Open titles and only lacked a PGA championship to complete a career “grand slam” of the four major tournaments.

Arnold Palmer burst onto the pro golfing scene just when television was becoming popular. Channel 10 (NBC) and Channel 13 (CBS) would occasionally air some pro golfing events and some of them would be won by the man we all called ‘Arnie’. He wore his emotions on his sleeve and would visibly grimace and contort after a closely-missed putt or a ball landing in a sand trap. And we would cheer with him when he showed the broad-grinning emotions of exultation when sinking a long putt for a win.

Palmer’s first professional victory was the 1955 Canadian Open, played at Weston Golf and Country Club in Toronto. His 23-under-par still stands as a tournament record. He earned $2,400 (Canadian) for the win, out of a total purse of $15,000. The most recent Canadian Open paid just over a million dollars out of a total purse of nearly six million. The rise in money in professional golf can arguably be attributed to one man: Arnold Daniel Palmer.

When my parents retired and moved to Orlando in the late ’60s, they joined Rio Pinar Golf and Country Club, which hosted an annual PGA tour stop called The Citrus each February. It was televised by NBC and attracted most of the big names in golf at the time. My Dad joined his fellow Rio members as a volunteer marshal and was assigned to hold up a wooden paddle that said ‘Quiet’ whenever someone was teeing off or putting. Interestingly, after some of them putted, they were teed off.

I would come up from college and wander around at the Open, gaping at all the household names playing for the $23,000 first prize out of a total purse of $115,000. I looked forward to seeing Mike Morley from Minot, a classically alliterative name. Morley’s career was closely followed by my neighbor David Presthus, who was one of the best golfers to come out of Rugby and whose middle name is ‘Arne’. Go figure.

One year I chatted with a well-tanned NBC technician whose job was to follow the golfers with a heavy parabolic microphone to capture the ‘thock!’ of the clubhead on the ball. He told me he earned $35,000 a year (union scale), which would be about $200,000 today.

Arnold Palmer won the Florida Citrus Invitational on February 14, 1971. It was a most popular victory as Palmer had established local residence and was in the process of developing his own golf course out by Walt Disney World.

I was stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia at the time and that weekend I watched the Citrus on NBC. Dad had been assigned to marshal at the 17th tee. The angle of the television shots of each golfer teeing off showed Dad clearly in the background. Because he was still recovering from a 1966 coronary, he was allowed to sit. I enjoyed a Saturday-Sunday round of occasional close-up shots of Dad’s face, which my Mom often remarked “…had the map of Norway written all over it”.

Years later, when I was working for the FAA in Orlando in the ’80s, I took a flight plan from Arnold Palmer for his Cessna Citation N1AP. He was still playing (and winning) on the Senior Tour, but was devoting more and more time to his off-course interests, which included designing golf courses, merchandising his umbrella-logoed products and, of course, being a TV and radio pitchman for everything from Cadillacs to ice tea.

Dad and I attended a fundraising “roast” for Arnold Palmer years ago and I obtained his autograph. He was very good-natured, approachable and comfortable with this fame.

Gronvold is a 1966 RHS graduate, approachable and comfortable with his Rio Pinar record for throwing a putter farther than anyone to date.

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